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Seeing the forest with the leaves – clues to canopy placement from leaf fossil size and venation characteristics


Corresponding author: C. Kevin Boyce. Tel.: (773) 834-7640; fax: (773) 702-9505; e-mail:


Although a variety of leaf characteristics appear to be induced by light environment during development, analysis of ontogenetic changes in living broad leaved trees has suggested that a number of other traits also lumped into the classic ‘sun’ versus ‘shade’ morphological distinctions, including leaf size, shape, and vein density, are instead controlled largely by local hydraulic environment within the tree canopy. The regularity in how these traits vary with canopy placement suggests a method for addressing a classic paleobotanical quandary: the stature of the source plant – from herb or shrub to canopy tree – is typically unknown for leaf fossils. The study of Ginkgo here complements previous work on Quercus that indicated that leaves throughout the crown are identical in size and venation at the time of bud break and that morphological adaptation to the local microenvironment takes place largely during the expansion phase after the determination of the vascular architecture is complete. Hence, variation in vein density does not reflect differential vein production so much as the distortion of similar vein networks over different final surface areas driven by variation in local hydraulic supply during expansion. Unlike the diffusely growing leaves of the angiosperm, Quercus, the marginally growing leaves of Ginkgo do show some potential for differential vein production, but expansion effects still dominate. The approach suggested here may prove useful for assessing the likelihood that two distinct fossil morphospecies actually represent leaves of the same plant and to gather information concerning canopy structure from disarticulated leaves.

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